Tonight I went for a walk to clear my head, something I do most nights lately to push through jet lag after a trip to the other side of the world. I had just read parts of Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer’s brain-melting conversation and thought about it as I walked all over my neighborhood. At the midway point of my walk, a man sitting in front of a bar grabbed my elbow as I passed. I kept walking and his friend grabbed my thigh. He yelled HEY, as though by not engaging, I had wronged them both.
Before that, I was laying out a new essay in my head, thinking about something Lena Dunham said about “this new world in which women aren’t just supposed to be protected from actions, they’re supposed to be protected from language,” and “I’m not going to cry, I’m a fucking queen.” I was thinking about the fact that I, too, am a fucking queen: the Queen of Swords, the woman who has awakened and deepened spiritually through many years of pain, the woman whose core of wisdom has been carved from her sorrow. I have cried a lot. I hope I’m going to cry more.
Tonight, though, I am fine. I’m not even feeling shaken, really, but I know that’s the kind of lie I tell myself because fucking queens are not supposed to be weak. Fine is the lie I tell myself when I hear, see, feel a thing that reminds me of one, or some, or all of the times I’ve been violated, but I must not cry because I’m at a reading, at my desk, in a classroom, on the sidewalk, places where there must be no weakness. Fine is the place I go when another boyfriend has a hard time relating to my discomfort with the idea of group couples’ massage classes or tells me he has reservations about being with someone who’s been traumatized because it’s just too much for him right now at this point in his life when he’s just trying to get drama-free. Fine is the throne the Queen sits on, a cradle of stone, and the throne grows from my body when I sense that my heart or my body is not safe. The instructions I’ve received for existing and relating: be vulnerable sometimes, impenetrable others. This, to me, is an impossible slalom.
I am not really fine. I have an extreme, persistent startle response that has made me seriously worry that I will need to be given the Heimlich maneuver one of these times I choke on a piece of jerky. I had to use a browser extension to block my Facebook newsfeed for a while when the Stanford rapist’s face was all over it, because I had essays due to editors and couldn’t waste time being not-okay, but every time I saw his face, I’d get triggered, which means I’d experience panic attacks and physical distress because a ten-year stint of untreated PTSD following an on-campus rape at age twenty (compounded by subsequent rapes, acts of violence, stalking incidents, and other trauma sources) has almost certainly changed my brain. Known effects of PTSD on the brain: reduced hippocampal volume, changes in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a hyperactive amygdala. I struggle to differentiate between past traumas and present experiences; I have stress responses to stimuli that seemingly have nothing to do with the trauma source; I jump and gasp when I’m alone in the office and someone enters.
I’m not weak, but I have been weakened, which is not the same — some parts of me have grown strong to compensate. I don’t know what they are, but I know how I feel when I have a sword in my hand, radiating power, my whole body wrapped in white and my head behind a mask as I advance up and down the fencing strip, letting another person push an epee into my arm over and over, the metal pressing so hard that I develop a two-inch patch of bruise over a hematoma. I wear short sleeves. I tell everyone, I’m a fencer, it hurts but it’s not dangerous, because I want them to know that I am fine. My skin cannot be broken. I cannot be pierced.
The Queen of Swords has access to power. She executes. She is alone. Her right hand holds a sword and her left hand is open, raised. Her crown is made of butterflies.